Manorath Paintings from Nathdwara

by Aditya Ruia

Manorath (mano = mind and rath = vehicle), also translated as ‘wish of the mind,’ records a special darshan sponsored by a Goswami of the Pushtimarg sect or a devotee for the pleasure of Shrinathji. Vallabhacharya’s teachings expound that one should dedicate one’s life, wealth, and all material possessions for the pleasure of Shrinathji and only then partake of it. Depicting a manorath performs the function of recording a punya karma (meritorious deed) and carrying it back as a memory to be shared with family and friends..

While early (traditional) manoraths were painted much like miniature paintings (Figure 1), the innovations of the early 20th century have been held as exemplars of modernity by art historians and collectors.



Figure 1

Traditional manorath painting depicting the Goswamis of Kankroli performing a manorath at Nathdwara.

c.1900, 11.5 x 8.75 in., gouache on paper, Aditya Ruia Collection, India.

In the 1900s, innovative (popular) manoraths were introduced to pilgrims as a fusion of technology and traditional painting. Employing a photographic aesthetic, they allowed for wider patronage and circulation among devotees. The devotees themselves were the patrons of these manoraths, thereby receiving grace (pushti) from Shrinathji.


Figure 2

Udairam Bhagwandas, Nathdwara 1925, 18 x 24 in.

Silver gelatin photo and watercolor, Aditya Ruia Collection, India.

Figure 2 is an example of the popular genre. The background of palaces signifies the home of Shrinathji in Vraja, while the water represents the river Yamuna. The flora around Shrinathji is the signifier of the vanas (forests) in which Krishna performed his lilas (divine play). In the middle ground, Shrinathji appears attended by Vallabhacharya and his son Vitthalnathji, while the foreground depicts the patron devotee and his family.

In a single visual, the artist has placed the devotee into the “mythopoetic” world of Shrinathji, conflating time with Krishna, the founders of the Pushtimarg, and himself.


Figure 3

Chitrakar Nainsukh Liladhar, Nathdwara 1920, 20 x 25 in. 

Silver gelatin photo and watercolor  Aditya Ruia Collection, India.

Figure 3 is another example of this popular genre where the locus has shifted to the temple’s interior, depicting Shrinathji in a bangla (pavilion). The display of this manorath places the devotee and his family in constant communion with their family deity.

Due to substantial demand by devotees to carry back a memory, artists in Nathdwara devised novel ways to meet their requirements of speed and accuracy.

Popular backgrounds were available in artists’ studios from which the devotee could choose, depending on the manorath he had sponsored or fancied himself being part of (Figure 2). Photographs of the devotee and his family were then taken by the artist or photo studio and printed on special matte paper, which enabled overpainting. The faces would then be cut from the photograph, finely scraped from the back, applied on the pre-selected background, and merged. Once done, the clothes and limbs and digits would be drawn, painted and prepared for the devotee to collect.

These allowed the patron or devotee to locate himself as part of the liturgical events, thereby giving him a greater sense of identity within the sampradaya.

Aditya Ruia

Scholar and Collector

Mumbai, India


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